Child Soldiers Still on the March

LONDON – Hundreds of thousands of child soldiers are being used in conflicts around the world and governments are doing little to stop this, says a report published Wednesday.

"Governments are undermining progress in ending the use of children as soldiers," says the "Child Soldiers Global Report 2004" produced by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, a group of human rights and humanitarian organizations.

The report says children are fighting in almost every major conflict, in both government and opposition forces. "They are being injured, subjected to horrific abuse, and killed," the report says.

"Tens of thousands of children are being used by government armed forces in Myanmar [Burma]," head of the coalition Casey Kelso told IPS. "In Colombia, upwards of 14,000 child soldiers are being used both by rebels and the government-backed paramilitaries."

Up to 100,000 child soldiers are engaged in conflicts across Africa, with "at least 30,000 in Sudan," he said. A precise worldwide total is difficult to obtain because "this is an unacceptable practice that more and more governments try to hide," Kelso said. "It is hard to get at hard figures."

Some of the other countries with a high use of child soldiers in conflicts are Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, and now also southern Taiwan, Kelso said.

Until last year the United States was also on the list, following an admission that it had deployed 17-year-olds in conflict situations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child categorizes a child as someone below 18 years of age.

The coalition says that "at least 60 governments, including Australia, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States continue to legally recruit children aged 16 and 17."

Influential groups such as the G8 (the leading industrialized nations, comprising the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia), the United Nations, and the European Union (EU) have all adopted positions against the use of child soldiers, Kelso said. "There are a lot of good things on paper, but they have not been translated into action," he said.

Four members of the Security Council – Algeria, Benin, China, and Russia – have not ratified the child soldiers treaty arising from the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Others are not finding the political will to impose arms embargoes and political sanctions against countries using child soldiers, he said. Such actions cost money, and Western governments don’t want to end arms sales, he said.

"The international community is responsible for making these declarations and resolutions, and so it must follow up on them or people will begin to see through the paper," Kelso said.

The report reviews trends and developments since 2001 in 196 countries. "Despite some improvements the situation remained the same or deteriorated in many countries," the report says. "Wars ending in Afghanistan, Angola, and Sierra Leone led to the demobilization of 40,000 children, but over 25,000 were drawn into conflicts in Cote d’Ivoire and Sudan alone."

Dozens of groups in at least 21 conflicts have recruited tens of thousands of children since 2001, "forcing them into combat, training them to use explosives and weapons, and subjecting them to rape, violence, and hard labor," the report says.

The report says that "opportunities for progress, including the creation of and growing support for a UN child soldiers treaty, the creation of demobilization programs in some countries, and momentum toward prosecutions of those recruiting children, have been undermined by governments actively breaking pledges or failing to show political leadership."

The coalition says the Security Council should take "immediate and decisive action to get children out of conflict by applying targeted sanctions and referring child recruiters to the International Criminal Court for prosecution."

The steering committee of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers consists of Amnesty International, Defense for Children International, Human Rights Watch, International Federation Terre des Hommes, International Save the Children Alliance, Jesuit Refugee Service, the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva, and World Vision International.

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